At the homecoming, moose run loose but the people are all friendly

August 23 1993


At the homecoming, moose run loose but the people are all friendly

August 23 1993



Letter from Howley

At the homecoming, moose run loose but the people are all friendly

Maclean’s graphic artist Eric Legge went home to Howley, Nfld., during his recent vacation, as he does most summers. This summer’s visit was special because, as part of a tradition followed from time to time by most Newfoundland communities, 1993 is Come Home Year in Howley (population 350) and Legge’s vacation spanned the 10 days of family reunions, meetings with old friends and social events. Legge, 44, left Newfoundland in 1967 to study at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, where he has lived ever since. When he is back home, visiting his mother (his father died last year at 86) and any of his five sisters who happen to be there from homes scattered across Canada, Legge likes to sketch the local scenery in pastels. He sent his portrayal of the driftwood-littered beach on Grand Lake Narrows along with his letter from Howley.

Are you aware our moose problem?” the RCMP officer asked my brother-in-law Jim Rendell as he handed him the ticket for doing 123 km/h in the 100-km/h zone on the Trans-Canada Highway just outside Howley.

“Yes, I heard there were a few around.”

“They tend to cross the highway at night, so drive carefully.”

The “moose problem” killed four people in 1989. There are over 500 reported accidents every year involving moose in Newfoundland, and this stretch of the highway, which cuts through a forest of spruce, is one of the worst on the island. According to a provincial wildlife biologist, there are an estimated 120,000 moose on the island. (They are descended from stock imported from New Brunswick in 1904 and set loose from a train—by local lore, on land that later became my father’s—where Howley now stands.) At night, in total darkness, they can appear suddenly, and a 1,200-lb. moose can demolish a car.

There was no danger that afternoon. But after supper the next night, my sister Ruby, my mother and I took a ride with old friend Jim McLean, who now lives in Pickering, Ont., over to Hampden, in White Bay. There was a fog on the Hampden road and we talked about keeping a moose lookout. Returning, it was totally dark by the time we got back on the highway. Within minutes, the brake lights on the car ahead lit up as it swerved from side to side, then pulled over to the shoulder. As we passed, the driver jumped out, waving frantically. We stopped, and my sister said: “Lock the doors, don’t get out.”

“We’re in Newfoundland,” I said. “This isn’t Los Angeles.” So Jim and I got out to see what the trouble was.

“I just clipped a moose,” the driver said. The passenger in the car, his teenage daughter, was sobbing hysterically as he tried to comfort her: “It’s OK Christina, it’s OK, my love.” The passenger window was completely gone, most of the glass having landed in her lap. But nobody was hurt, so we walked back to see if we could find the moose. The point of impact was easy to find because of glass on the road, but no blood and no moose. Later, however, friends saw a dead moose lying by the side of the highway.

The next day, the Come Home Year opening ceremonies were held on the Howley school field. About 300 people gathered around, hundreds more expected during the weekend.

Len Simms, a Howley native who is leader of the Conservative Opposition in the Newfoundland House of Assembly, is the first speaker, and tells of how proud he is to have been born here.

I see Ralph Curtis, a boyhood friend, walking onto the field with his parents, Selby and Rosie. We haven’t seen each other in 26 years. I walk over to Ralph and say hello but he doesn’t recognize me. “It’s Eric,” I say. Without saying anything, he reaches out and gathers me in a big hug. “So good to see you,” he says.

The next night, there is a dance at the community hall. The place is packed and everyone, old and young, dances to a mix of rock ’n’ roll, country and traditional jigs. Mary Packwood Harrison, now living in Labrador City, is walking around with a pen and paper writing down the

names of the people she has met. Cora Francis, who is sitting beside me, calls out to Basil Packwood, but he doesn’t know who she is. They play a guessing game for a while and then Cora says: “Bas, who used to make all those cookies for you?”

“Cora Francis,” he says, and they hug. It’s like this for a lot of people over the next few days. “I’ve never been kissed and hugged so much before in my life,” said my sister later.

When most of those people (and I) left Howley, it was a much more isolated community and everybody felt like family. There were few telephones or TV sets (my parents bought a TV set when I was 14, and got a telephone after I left home). It was a big event when the RCMP would come to town by seaplane and land in Grand Lake. There is a road now, designated the 401, that links Howley to the Trans-Canada. Some Howley people credit the 401 to Clyde Wells, a native of Buchans Junction and the local member of the House of Assembly when the 10-km road was built in 1968. But before that, the train (now gone, the tracks ripped up) was the only way in or out. There were two passenger trains a day, No. 1 from the east in the early afternoon, and No. 2 from the west in the early evening. We would gather at the railway station to watch. If a stranger arrived, we would gawk.

On Sunday, we go to a memorial service at the Anglican Church, for Anglicans and Catholics, for Howley men killed in war. The Come Home Year committee wanted to hold a church service for all denominations, but no church is big enough. The organist has been on loan from the United Church for three years now. Deer Lake St. Michael’s Choir performs a song written for the occasion, You Are Part of the Family.

The minister talks about conducting a service in Nova Scotia at which most of the congregation were Newfoundlanders. Newfoundlanders like to stick together. In Toronto, there are Newfoundland clubs, Newfoundland stores and a Newfoundland newspaper, The Downhomer, which circulates across Canada.

Michael Dolmont of Whitecourt, Alta., a childhood friend, located his brother Sonny through The Downhomer. There are 10 Dolmont children, all born in Howley, and to coincide with Howley’s Come Home Year they organized a reunion. Their mother, Margaret, gave birth to them, including three sets of twins, in an eight-year span. After her death, in 1950, the children were split up and, as a result, there are various spellings of the surname used in the family (the name on Margaret’s grave marker is Dolomount). For the reunion, they came from Alberta, Ontario, St. John’s and different parts of the United States. With spouses, children and relatives, 35 people in all sat down to a dinner of boiled salt beef and cabbage at the community hall wearing T-shirts with “Poor Marg’s Gang” printed on them.

Howley took its name from James Patrick Howley, a geologist who made a map of Newfoundland and who was surveying the area for coal in the early 1900s. The town became a flag stop when the first mining was done by the Reid Newfoundland Railway Co. around 1897. It was later settled in the 1920s by loggers who cut wood around Grand Lake and floated the logs, “four-foots,” in booms across Grand Lake, through Deer Lake and down the Humber River to the mill in Corner Brook. Now, the logging is farther afield and the logs are transported by truck.

According to one anonymous account from 1943, on display for Come Home Year, Howley then was one of the most prosperous communities in Newfoundland, with almost no unemployment. It boasted a four-room school with 180 students (the local school now has 42 pupils). It had the only lift-bridge in Newfoundland, allowing tugboats that towed the log booms to pass between Grand Lake and Sandy Lake. The account states: “Howley looks like a town in Holland. There are 50 windmills visible from the railway station. People must generate their own power. It is rumored that a power plant will be installed after the war.” (It was, in 1946.)

Although I come home every summer I am still amazed at the friendliness of the people. And one reason, I’m sure, is the lack of stress. Newfoundlanders are so easygoing. After spending the previous 11 'h months in Stress City, Ont., it is quite apparent. It is commonplace to go into a store and have the cashier address you as “my love” or “my darlin.’ ” When Jim McLean ordered eggs Benedict for breakfast at the Driftwood Inn in Deer Lake, the cook called the off-duty cook at home to find out how to make them. The waitress returned and very apologetically explained that they had found the recipe but couldn’t make it because they didn’t have any English muffins. “Would you like something else instead, my love?” One afternoon, after meeting an old school friend at the Howley Shopping Centre, a general store run by Ron and Jean Kelly, Jim McLean said: “Some people are so nice, and they don’t know it.”

On Aug. 1, the 10 days of festivities are drawing to a close. As I walk on to the school field for the closing ceremonies, my throat begins to tighten. There is a song by a local band, Uncle Harry’s Bar, playing on the public address system:

The beauty and the freedom to do the things we please, the things we take for granted should bring us to our knees. Just take a look around you, it’s not hard to understand why we have a piece of heaven right here in Newfoundland.

Rosemary Hancock, visiting from Fort McMurray, Alta., with her husband, Gord, who left Howley 40 years ago, gets up to say a few words. During their stay, Gord’s mother died. “I’ve been hearing the names for years—the Kellys, the Strouds—but they meant nothing until now.” Her voice broke as she thanked people for their warmth and hospitality, and added: “These moments should be cherished forever.”

A friend, Karl Kelly, introduces me to Jim Cumby, who is 28, and spent five years in Toronto working as a cook but, because his father was ill, came back to Howley last year and decided to stay. When I asked him why, he hesitated and looked at me as if I had asked him why the sky is blue. “Sure, there’s no place like this,” he said. “This is home.”